Minnesota's strike of state workers may be one of the biggest in labor history

Sunday, October 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ With state workers ranging from soup-servers to nut-tighteners on strike, Minnesota's weeklong walkout may go down as one of the most expansive public-sector strikes in recent history.

Minnesota is one of only about 10 states in which its employees can legally go on strike. And even in some states where such strikes are technically legal, in practice they're never allowed, labor experts say.

Based on the 22,000 workers who stayed off the job Oct. 1, Minnesota's strike is the second-largest public walkout since 1990, said Michael Cimini, an economist with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 47,000 county workers in Los Angeles joined a job action last year.

National Guard troops have been brought in to take over some of the duties of striking workers at psychiatric treatment centers, nursing homes and group homes _ but the 700 Guard members performed only basic duties such as janitorial work, not health care work that requires professional licenses.

It is unusual for states to call out the Guard in strikes, and when they do, troops are generally used in policing roles, said Dennis Nolan, a professor of labor law at the University of South Carolina.

But few strikes present the sort of public safety concerns that Minnesota's does, he said. Striking workers include social workers, psychologists, nurses' aides, food workers, driver's exam instructors, fiscal auditors, animal trainers and janitors, among others.

``I have not heard of a strike this broad, certainly not in the last 10 or 15 years,'' said Michael Handel, a sociology professor who specializes in labor issues at the University of Wisconsin.

With workers staying away from jobs in essential services such as nursing homes, there is pressure for politicians to act, Nolan said.

``If you didn't use the National Guard to provide those services and you had some patient in the nursing homes die, you'd be blamed,'' he said.

Examples of the strike's disruptions abound. Many students at three state-run schools, including academies for blind and deaf students, are having to commute from home while maintenance workers or dormitory house parents are on strike.

At Rochester's Driver License Exam Station, no road tests are being given until the strike is over, and then there will be a five-week backlog. And while heavy snow isn't expected for several weeks, officials have just 162 managers and about 150 temporary employees to run the state's 862 snowplows. Normally, there are about 1,400 people for that job.

By the end of the week there had been reports of strike-related altercations, including a man in Rochester was struck by a car Thursday after trying to take a picture of a woman who crossed the picket line.

Though such incidents have been rare, experts say conflicts are likely to rise if the strike drags on for weeks. No negotiations are currently scheduled.

The striking unions _ Council 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees _ have a combined membership of more than 29,000. But more than 1,700 unionized prison guards are barred from striking and 1,182 other workers were on leaves authorized before the strike.

Nolan said he's not surprised so many workers are staying off the job. The Midwest is known as friendly territory for the labor movement.

``The bedrock attitude is supportive of unions,'' he said. ``You know if you cross that picket line, there are going to be co-workers who are going to hate your guts, maybe for years.''